Under the aegis of Dubai Design District and the label ‘UAE Design Stories: The Next Generation from The Emirates’, an exhibition of work from some of the brightest Emirati design talent is getting some international exposure – starting with the imminent Milan Design Week (17–22 April) and moving on to the London Design Festival (September) before returning to Dubai for Design Week in November.
Hopefully one or more of the designers will get picked up by design-led galleries, makers and distributors outside the Middle East. But more generally this tour is very obviously another step in the ‘soft power’ strategy designed to show the UAE punching above its weight; the country (and especially Dubai) is determined to be seen as a cradle of design, inviting an international audience to see just how much native talent is bubbling under the stolid preconceptions.
Or as Noura Al Kaabi, UAE Minister of Culture and Knowledge Development, put it: “The Ministry of Culture supports initiatives like this which go a long way in promoting the rich and diverse culture of the region to international audiences and thereby strategically place Dubai as a centre for culture and creativity.”
The Milan event will have a theme – ‘Emirati Landscape: Flora, Fauna and Soil’ – and the same designers will be moving on to ‘Nomadism: Yesterday & Now’ for London.
The exhibition is curated by Khalid Shafar, himself an accomplished designer who describes his own work as “a Dubai-based brand that creates quirky interior space objects out of stories” – we particularly liked a couple of his recent collaborations, with Lasvit for Silent Call at last year’s Dubai Design Week (a dynamic lighting chandelier-cum-sculpture based on stylised domes of five noted mosques); and with Manufacture des Gobelins on the Chromachron tapestry that was in the recently concluded Co-Lab show at the Louvre Abu Dhabi.
With another curator, Shafar himself would probably be included among the ten nominees. They certainly include some newcomers alongside the better-known faces:
Zeinab Alhashemi is a designer with definite artistic aspirations; she likes to tell a story and she seems to enjoy the challenge of experimenting with new materials and techniques. For Milan she’ll have the San’am rug that she crafted from camel leather and filled with sand – you couldn’t get more authentically regionally.
Roudha Alshamsi is another designer with an artistic identity – her most recent interest is what she calls “art furniture”, a collection based on acacia trees. In particular, she has homed in on the acacia’s seedpods, which are produced in pentagonal cones; the Acacia Surface series are sculptural pieces furniture designs constructed from fractals of adjacent wooden pentagons. She’ll be exhibiting two of these pieces.
Aljoud Lootah, perhaps the best known of the group, will have the Al Areesh collection she debuted at last year’s Dubai Design Week. Inspired by the traditional palm frond (or palm leaf) structures found across the Middle East, the collection includes furniture and lighting pieces; in Milan she’ll be showing a new stool.
Alia Mazrooei is one of the stars of ZU’s Interior Design course; by the time she graduated in 2017 she was already winning awards and looking every inch a creative entrepreneur, and her Shelter bench was a hit of the 2017 Global Grad Show. Milan will see Stingray, a piece of furniture inspired by the (you probably guessed it) stingray.
Azza Al Qubaisi, a sculptor and jeweller with a developed product design line, created her Yereda Emirati brand to showcase functional and sustainable art pieces inspired by her sculptures made from palm fronds. Milan will get a Yereda bench.
Alia bin Omair is a jewellery designer who has always drawn on Emirati symbols. She says she aims for ‘art jewellery’, “where beauty and quality matter more than commercial value”. Her Leaf collection, inspired by the look of pressed palm tree fibre, is commendably understated.
Salem Al-Mansoori is an interdisciplinary designer with a background in Computational Engineering and a degree from Khalifa University; he says his passion lies in the construction of aesthetic systems that are capable of generating infinitely varying visual elements. He makes data-driven, narrative-based 3D printed sculptures.
Ahmad AlAreef, a young Bedouin Emirati artist raised between Al Ain and Abu Dhabi, describes his approach to art as coming from “a place of tradition and heritage as well as contemporary notions”. He’ll display a projection focused on the formation of sand dunes.
Abdalla AlMulla is an Emirati architect who came up with a fascinating collaboration at the last Dubai Design Week – he designed a 3D structure from rhomboid discs that replicated the shapes in Gafla Jewellery’s latest collection. He has a couple of projects in the show. Intrinsic Flux is a tiled wall panel design in clay, a modern interpretation of Islamic geometric patterns that is intended to provide a continuously altering surface on the wall; OctWov is a similarly geometric table with a top plane supported by three vertical interwoven spiral steel columns.
Bader Najeeb, a self-taught chef with a major social media following, is just 22 but has already demonstrated the kind of culinary imagination that can put an Emirati twist on to just about any recipe borrowed from another country. We’re not sure what to expect in Milan, but we’re told he will “fuse design and food to create a truly unique culinary experience”.
Latifa Saeed is an Emirati artist and designer who works across fine art, graphic design, advertising, branding and product design. She’s been working on her Kinetic Khoos series since 2015, when she presented this sculptural collection of children’s toys made from raw materials at Design Days Dubai. The interlocking animals and objects are laser-cut from sheets of palm tree leaves; she’ll have a fly in Milan.
Mohammad Saeed Al Shehhi, d3’s CEO said: “We are delighted to be a part of Salone Del Mobile this year, the largest trade fair of its kind in the world. We are particularly proud to present the works of ten Emirati designers and highlight the design talent here in the UAE.”
In fact the show won’t actually be at the Salone del Mobile, the original (and the biggest and best) element of Milan Design Week; the Salone is the world’s biggest and best interiors fair – for furniture, office fitouts and (in alternating years) lighting and kitchens.
Essentially the Salone takes over the massive Fiera Milano Rho exhibition centre on the edge of town, while the other leg of Milan Design Week – the Fuorisalone – is a collection of broader designs exhibitions, events and networking opportunities distributed around the city, taking over convenient spaces in much the same way as the Edinburgh Festival Fringe does. That’s where the Emirati designers will be located, in the NYC Pool gallery right in the centre of town on Via Santa Maria Fulcorina.
The Salone is conventionally managed (and very well too). The Fuorisalone, which started spontaneously in the 1980s, doesn’t have a central organisation at all, apart from an information-rich website of events and locations; we couldn’t find the UAE Design Stories exhibition listed, though.